Feature

Major League Baseball Wants to Crush 42 Minor League Teams — And Their Hometowns

Major League Baseball is threatening to destroy 42 minor league teams, and none of its reasons for doing so are any good.

Minor League Baseball, known as MiLB, is the level where nearly every future big-league player is developed, making it a vital piece of the baseball hierarchy in America. Minor league teams not only feed the MLB teams with which they’re affiliated, they also create thousands of jobs for smaller baseball-friendly communities across the nation, such as Lowell, Massachusetts, or more remote, otherwise baseball-less locales such as Burlington, Vermont, or Keizer, Oregon.

Minor league teams are what truly allows the sport to be considered the “national pastime,” as it manages to make the game national.

So far, we’ve heard MLB’s reasoning for shrinking the minors, we’ve heard some Minor League teams respond, and we’ve even witnessed members of Congress get in on the discussion with a disapproving letter and a task force. But we haven’t heard from the players themselves. What do the players, who lack a seat at the table in all of these discussions, think of the potential loss of more than 1,000 jobs, of severing the connection between MLB and 42 communities, and of their desire for a fair wage being repaid with the loss of a quarter of their jobs?

The initial reason for shrinking the minors, both in reporting by Baseball America and via MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is “inadequate facilities.” Garrett Broshuis, a former minor league player with the Giants who is known for both his attempts to unionize MiLB players and his role as a lawyer representing players in a class-action lawsuit seeking unpaid wages, Senne v. MLB, believes this is an excuse “to try to push through a cost-saving measure.”

Broshuis is not alone in feeling this way. An active minor league player (who will remain anonymous to protect his identity) also believes the facilities could use a boost, but that shuttering teams isn’t the way to make it happen. “These MiLB teams are massively profitable in many cases for their owners, and they sink very little of that money back into facilities for players. There ought to be accountability for an organization to give back to the players that earn them their money,” he said.

In fact, players expecting to be paid for the value they create is the real reason behind MLB’s push; it’s using an effort by players to receive fair wages as an excuse to cut costs elsewhere and hurt smaller communities with minor league teams, all in the name of boosting profits a little bit.

In 2018, MLB successfully lobbied Congress to limit the pay of minor league players — who are paid by the major league teams themselves — to the federal minimum wage, and just 40 hours per week in-season. Even though players work more like 60-70 hours per week, they receive no overtime, and also are not paid for spring training, the postseason, or the offseason.

Understandably, there was backlash to MLB’s limiting minor-league salaries to as low as $290 for 40 hours of work, as the league’s lobbying to codify awful living and working conditions was brought to the attention of many fans who were otherwise unaware. So now, you have commissioner Manfred saying 42 teams need to be disaffiliated so that MLB teams can increase minor league pay for the remaining players, as if it’s an either/or proposition for an industry that rakes in $10 billion annually.

The reality is that paying every single minor league player an average of $50,000 per year would cost MLB teams $7.5 million. With $10 billion in revenue pouring in annually, that’s pocket change. It’s the salary of a single year of a good relief pitcher.

Kyle Johnson, another former minor leaguer, played with three of the teams on the disaffiliation list: the Orum Owlz, Burlington Bees, and Binghamton Rumble Ponies. He pointed out that the Toronto Blue Jays already increased pay for players at the lower levels, and haven’t gone broke in the process.

“The Blue Jays have shown that the model works: they’re not bankrupt, they’re not in trouble, and every single one of those guys in the Blue Jays’ organization is extremely thankful and not as stressed as I was every two weeks waiting for my paycheck when the $400 ran out,” he said. “The model can work, it can work at every single level MLB has right now.”

While the Jays’ decision to raise pay was an admirable one, by doubling player salaries they raised poverty-level wages to, well, slightly higher poverty-level wages. This is the kind of thing that happens when the players don’t have a seat at the table, and precisely why MLB is advocating for higher minor league pay now: The league can do it on its own terms, while squeezing the owners of Minor League Baseball teams for more money and concessions.

The players need a voice at the bargaining table, they need to be represented.
– Garrett Broshuis

“That’s the root of the problem,” says Broshuis. “They’re talking about cutting 1,000 minor-league jobs here, and you’re talking about doing it without giving the players a voice at all. The players need a voice at the bargaining table, they need to be represented, and it’s quite unfortunate that they don’t have a voice right now. There are other examples out there of minor league players with representation, like minor league hockey has a union, and in truth those players are treated much better than MiLB players.”

Broshuis isn’t exaggerating about how much better Pro Hockey Player Association players are treated than Minor League Baseball ones: the average salary of a PHPA member in the American Hockey League — the National Hockey League’s Triple-A equivalent — is around $118,000, while the minimum is $50,000. The per diem, too, is about three times what MiLB’s players receive to feed themselves. The NHL does not pull in the kind of revenue MLB does — it has never cracked $5 billion as a league — and yet it has managed to survive while treating players like human beings.

Players are also concerned about what cutting off local communities from affiliated ball will do to the growth of the game. Johnson pointed out that staying with host families who were “super engaged with the teams” was a highlight for him. Broshuis pointed out that teams like his first aren’t located anywhere near other pro ball. “If you deprive those fans of baseball, they just aren’t going to go to a game. That’s a lot of kids that aren’t exposed to baseball games, and if you want to grow the game, and want your fan base to be young, then you would think you would want to continue to provide opportunities for kids to go to games like they do at the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes,” he said.

A study suggests 4 million fans would be cut off from pro baseball if MLB’s plan goes through. The divide between baseball-haves and the have-nots would mirror a rural/urban divide in America, too.

“On the fan side, cutting down on the minor league levels hurts every party involved. It cuts down fan bases across the country, it concentrates baseball in major cities, which hurts the nationwide appeal of the game,” said the active anonymous player. “For many people, it means they won’t get to see an affiliated baseball game live. It makes no sense for MLB teams to cut down on farm systems, in both the short and long term.”

MLB doesn’t care about any of this, though. And that’s a shame for the players, the fans, and for the future of professional baseball in America, too.

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First Person

Bankruptcy Promised Me a Fresh Start. Predatory Lenders Are Trying to Ruin It.

When a U.S. bankruptcy court requested an itemized list of all the assets my wife and I owned, it broke us free from the facade of the faux middle-class lifestyle in which we were pretending to live. Looking through a tally of borrowed items and hand-me-downs with a net value of nothing replaced the shame of failure with the realization that we never made it in the first place.

We sought refuge in bankruptcy’s lore of the American Dream, believing in the rhetoric of fresh starts and new beginnings. However, for millions of families, debt forgiveness isn’t enough. Without a sustainable income or other necessities such as adequate health care, a bankruptcy discharge can perpetuate the cycle of debt, opening the door to unique yet systemic forms of predatory lending.

Bankruptcy can be a powerful tool for families seeking relief from dire financial straits. Sherry Hoban, executive director for the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project in Philadelphia, explained that discharging consumer debts works to the benefit of everyone. “The more people are able to take advantage of this benefit and able to discharge some of their back steps, be financially stable going forward, they will then be able to participate in the economy again to the benefit of the community,” she said.

Dr. Deborah Thorne, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Idaho, worked with Elizabeth Warren as part of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project and has studied bankruptcies for the past 25 years.

“I do think more people should file, and they should file sooner,” Thorne told me. “What happens is when they wait, they extract their wealth in ways that they shouldn’t. People are taking out from their 401(k)’s. They might be borrowing money from family members.”

Thorne, along with her colleague Dr. Katherine Porter (now Congresswoman Katherine Porter of California’s 45th District), sought to discover what happens to families like mine after they file. It’s a critical area of research that’s often ignored.

The results were startling.

According to their research, a full 25 percent of debtors continue to find themselves in a financially unstable situation post-bankruptcy. New bills plague these families even as old debts disappear. Contrary to the stigma, credit misuse does not fuel the cycle of debt in the post-discharge landscape. Mortgages, rent, utilities, and car payments keep most families underwater.

Thorne’s research found that almost one-third of filers consider their financial situations to be unchanged or worse off since their bankruptcy discharge. Declining household income triggered by illness, job loss, or advanced age could nullify the new beginnings associated with bankruptcy. And as Thorne told me, any combination of the three would most likely make the process a waste of time.

“It stops the debt collectors from harassing you,” Thorne said. “You can get a little bit of sleep for a while, and then it starts over again.”

Her research is echoed in the work of the late Dr. Song Han and Dr. Geng Li of the Federal Reserve Board. They found that not only do bankruptcy filers continue to suffer from financial distress in the short and long term, but these households tend to accumulate less wealth over time than comparable nonfilers.

That’s capitalism.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, Han and Li found that the lending industry is eager to extend credit to recent bankruptcy filers, often with predatory loans that continue the cycle of debt. On average, my wife and I receive 10 credit card offers per month, not including solicitations for auto loans, payday loans, and mortgage refinances.

They’re all low-limit, high-fee cards with interest rates that would be illegal in a more fair society. Even with the caveat of those terms and conditions, I found it curious that lenders would want our business, considering we recently chose to forego paying our debts.

“[Bankruptcy filers] depend on it to make it day-to-day,” Thorne said in reference to post-discharge credit. She stressed that people were using it for necessities and not frivolous luxury goods. “And so, if you know that those people are vulnerable, heck yeah, that’s who you’re going to offer credit to.”

Dr. Benjamin Keys of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Han and Li, reviewed more than 200,000 credit card solicitations and linked them to borrower credit histories. He and his colleagues found that dependent on the boom-bust cycle of the economy, lenders are using bankruptcy records, not only credit scores, to tailor offers to consumers.

In hindsight, the reasoning is logical. Following the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which added cumbersome paperwork and financial costs to bankruptcy proceedings, the time allowed between chapter 7 filings was extended from six to eight years, though after a few ups and downs, filings returned to their 1990 levels by 2016. Recent filers are more likely to receive credit because they’re barred from filing for bankruptcy again for almost a decade.

“There are elements in which getting some access to credit can help to rebuild the credit score,” said Keys cautioning me not to apply a sinister motive to the practice. “That said, these cards can have very high fees and are very high cost for what they are, which is usually a low credit limit, and in many cases, they’re secured,” which means they require a security deposit from the customer.

Keys had the opportunity to inspect these mailings through a dataset provided by the company Mintel, a process he compared to participating in the Neilsen Television rating program. Mail offers for recent bankruptcy filers, he found, were quite different than typical credit card solicitations sent to the general population.

“It acknowledges that you’ve gone through bankruptcy right away and says we still want to make you a credit offer even though you’ve gone through bankruptcy,” he told me. “We were sort of struck by how specific that was and how finely tailored it was to this population.”

A mailing I received while writing this story came from The Bankruptcy Information and Re-Establishment Center, a Better Business Bureau accredited company, promising “you’re not getting the credit you deserve” and offering to pre-qualify me for a loan right now. “Re-establishing credit after bankruptcy is the only way to save money on future financing,” read the letter before noting in bold print, “you must make a new purchase after a bankruptcy in order to re-establish credit.”

“That’s capitalism,” as Thorne explained to me quite matter-of-factly at one point in our conversation.

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Analysis

Conservative Arguments For the Latest Food Stamp Cut Are Bogus. Here’s Why.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it had finalized a pending rule on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) that will affect nearly 700,000 able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). Areas with insufficient jobs will no longer be able to receive waivers for SNAP’s three-month time limit; ABAWDs will need to work, volunteer, or participate in job training for at least 80 hours a month to maintain eligibility, though the USDA is not providing supportive resources to help people get and keep jobs. In essence, this is a plan cruelly designed to terminate nutrition benefits.

This was the first of three SNAP-related rules introduced by the administration this year. If all three are finalized, they will have a cumulative effect of taking critical nutrition assistance from more than 3 million people.

The Trump administration’s attack on SNAP is nothing new; for decades, presidential administrations as well as members of Congress have been attempting to push people off SNAP, as seen under the Reagan administration, in 1990s welfare reform, and 2018’s farm bill. Selecting ABAWDs as a target was no coincidence; the policy is complicated and confusing, and though it has extremely high stakes for those affected, their voices are rarely heard.

More than that, though, it’s a rule ripe for generating arguments about personal responsibility, hands up instead of hands out, and the “dignity of work.” This talking point made a return appearance in a press release from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) and an op-ed from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who has apparently never labored under the oppressive eyes of a ruthless algorithm at an Amazon warehouse, or defended himself against violent customers attacking him over a McDonald’s counter.

Conservative policymakers rely on language like this to drive home the idea that programs like SNAP, along with housing vouchers, Medicaid, and other elements of the social safety net, are handouts encouraging dependence rather than part of the social contract. In cuts to programs like these, the argument is that without stricter guidelines, poor people will “lazily” rely on benefits.

This framing can also be seen in incidents like a flashy campaign to highlight corporate tax dodging that stigmatized public benefits, rather than focusing on the need for corporations to pay not only taxes, but fair wages.

Some may defensively and correctly note that many people subject to work requirements are already working; in 75 percent of SNAP households with someone who is subject to existing work requirements, for example, someone has worked and/or will work within a year of receiving SNAP. Furthermore, some people considered able-bodied for the purposes of SNAP are in fact disabled.

It’s also important to be aware that the overall quality of jobs in the United States has gone down. In some cities, as many as 62 percent of workers are employed in “low-wage” jobs. 30 percent of low-wage workers live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line. And while Perdue commented on Twitter that “there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” getting a job in a nation with very low unemployment can actually be challenging, particularly for people with limited education or trade skills and obligations that may not show up on SNAP paperwork.

Ample evidence dating to the 1970s, when they were first implemented with then-food stamps, demonstrates work requirements are ineffective when it comes to meeting the stated goal of fostering independence; “work or starve,” as NY Mag put it, does not result in systemic change. While people subject to work requirements may experience a moderate uptick in employment, it fades over time, suggesting the effects are not lasting.

There’s no evidence to support punitive measures like these.

In some cases, people actually grew poorer over time; the current ABAWDs requirements have people working 80 hours a month, but accept volunteering and training programs in addition to work hours, which are not necessarily avenues to making enough money to survive. When participants are involved in voluntary, rather than mandatory, work and training programs, on the other hand, they’re much more likely to experience improvements.

Meanwhile, SNAP contributes about $1.70 to the economy for every dollar spent, and can help insulate workers from shocks like recession and job loss. These benefits are tremendous poverty-fighting tools. Making SNAP harder to get will make it difficult to get people onto SNAP quickly when unemployment starts to spike, hurting local economies in addition to making it hard for families to feed themselves.

SNAP is not the only program being targeted with work requirements. Multiple states have pushed for Medicaid work requirements, though thus far every one has backed down or faced a legal challenge. Programs such as SNAP and TANF, notably, already have work requirements, they just aren’t stringent enough in the eyes of some critics.

There’s no evidence to support punitive measures like these. They do not improve employment rates or fiscal independence. It’s important to acknowledge this, but not at the cost of the larger point: SNAP exists to bolster access to nutrition in the United States through a variety of means, whether allowing people to pick up what they need at the grocery store or certifying children for school lunch eligibility.

SNAP doesn’t just need to be defended; 62 percent of voters actually believe the extremely popular and effective program should be expanded. The United States should increase the availability and quality of benefits, and eliminate bizarre and restrictive limitations on the program, such as the ban on hot food. When people lack access to stoves or microwaves, refusing to allow them to buy hot foods is cruel, and undermines the USDA’s own goal to “do right and feed everyone.” And it should streamline SNAP benefits — something under attack with the USDA’s proposed rule around Standard Utility Allowances (SUAs), which would make it harder for people to get SNAP benefits when they need them.

The nation must change the way it talks about programs like SNAP; they aren’t something to be ashamed of, or evidence that someone has failed. They are instead evidence of a belief that everyone deserves access to a standard of living that meets their needs, freeing them to lead their best lives.

 

 

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Analysis

Giving Tuesday Isn’t the Antidote to Black Friday’s Consumerism

Black Friday never fails to go viral: Videos of shoppers charging into stores, shouting expletives at one another, and brawling over doorbusters appear every year on the evening news before becoming memes on the internet. These images give life to the spectacle of Black Friday as a frenzy driven by classless penny-pinchers with irreverence to the struggles of underpaid, overworked retail employees. Giving Tuesday, a marathon day of fundraising for nonprofits on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, is the supposed genteel foil demonstrating self-control and selflessness.

For Giving Tuesday, the media find no obvious villain: Donating to nonprofits — or, as Giving Tuesday calls it, doing good — counters the overindulgence of Black Friday. However, positioning Giving Tuesday as the antidote to Black Friday is erroneous because both days stem from the same monster: widening disparities in income and wealth.

The vilification in Black Friday reporting casts shame upon the crowds that wreak havoc on stores in the name of snagging a deal. Take these headlines, for example: “What Turns Black Friday Shoppers Into Raging Hordes?” “The Human Costs of Black Friday, Explained by a Former Amazon Warehouse Manager.” “Why Black Friday Shopping Is Especially Dangerous in Tennessee – And How To Be Safe.”

However, the culprit behind Black Friday hysteria is more systemic than individualistic. Companies intentionally employ misleading tactics, such as creating a sense of faux scarcity and marking up the original price of products so the discount price seems better, to appeal to potential customers. The perception of limited temporality concerning the sales compounds this sense, strengthening the urgency and fear of missing out for many shoppers.

Meanwhile, stagnant wages, expensive health care, student loan debt, the racial wealth gap, and the gender wage gap, in addition to a host of other inequitable institutions, have left the average person in the United States in a state of financial precarity. Blaming these people for taking advantage of one of the few moments they may have to afford a new phone, kitchen appliance, or toy for their child not only ignores their victimization by the system, but fails to acknowledge that wealthier individuals actually spend more on Black Friday than do the people vilified in the day’s popular portrayals.

Giving Tuesday, which the 92nd Street Y and United Nations Foundation launched in 2012 as a Twitter hashtag, is the apparent salve to rampant consumerism. People can absolve their conscience of the post-splurge guilt and regret by donating money or volunteering time to a charitable cause. “When you give, you feel happier, more fulfilled, and empathetic,” wrote Asha Curran, Chief Innovation Officer and Director of the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y, in 2017.

Centered at the core of Giving Tuesday is “the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” People give back, ushering “in the holidays’ charitable spirit” and powering a movement that has grown over the years and has the potential to raise half a billion dollars this year.

However, as “a day that encourages people to do good,” Giving Tuesday is not as inclusive as it states. The mean gift size during Giving Tuesday in 2018 was $105, an amount that is not insignificant for a cash-strapped individual. Those who are able to participate in Giving Tuesday, whether that be by donating money or volunteering time, are not representative of the marginalized communities in need of investment. In fact, charitable giving has increased for upper-income households while decreasing for middle- and lower-income households — a trend that tracks the expanding wealth gap.

While donations from individuals and organizations offer relief for nonprofits working in under-resourced communities, a funding system in which groups must vie for the limited goodwill of some benevolent donor does not address the roots of inequity, inequality, and injustice. Similar to how stores promote deals to bring in potential customers for Black Friday, nonprofits market their cause to potential donors for Giving Tuesday.

A quick look at Giving Tuesday pages shows how the campaign plays into this competitive dynamic as nonprofits are listed as products to be filtered and added to an online gift bag and on leaderboards showcasing the most successful fundraising hauls. Donations are transactional: $50 provides shelter for a night, $100 “provides one month of meals” to a sheltered family, $250 “provides a day of therapeutic child care services” for a sheltered child. Giving Tuesday puts a price tag on critical services for marginalized communities, and wealthy donors determine if the price is right.

Giving Tuesday is not as inclusive as it states.

Expanding inequality in income and wealth has resulted in a society in which the top 1 percent commands more money and political power than the bottom 50 percent. Bemoaning the greed of Black Friday while praising the altruism of Giving Tuesday ignores the structures that give life to both.

For the average person in the United States, uncertainty and instability dictate their experience; faulting them for perpetuating a splurge-heavy holiday season fails to recognize their existence at the mercy of low wages, staggering debt, privileged corporate interests, and more. Nonprofits and community organizations are in a similar position: When the government fails to support them, they become hostage to privatized benevolence.

Instead of congratulatory applause for donors on Giving Tuesday, let’s reevaluate the cruel cycle in which society denies marginalized communities access to comfort and opportunity, denigrates them for attempting to carve out access, expects nonprofits to compete for money that will assist the marginalized communities, and then thanks wealthy donors for their performative generosity.

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Analysis

How an Algorithm Meant to Help Parents Could Target Poor Families Instead

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, is poised to implement a major change in the way families are hooked up with social services come January 2020. If “Allegheny County” sounds familiar, it’s probably because the county recently received significant attention for its child welfare investigative process. In 2015, it incorporated a predictive algorithm called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool into its child welfare program. That algorithm analyzes parental and family data to generate a risk score for families who are alleged to have maltreated a child.

In 2020, Allegheny will begin applying a similar algorithm to every family that gives birth in the county, with the goal of linking families in need to supportive services before a maltreatment case is opened. But some critics insist that it will be just another way for government to police the poor.

The new program is called “Hello Baby.” The plan is to eventually apply it across the county, but the January launch will begin in only a select few hospitals. Like the Allegheny Family Screening Tool, the Hello Baby algorithm analyzes family data to apply an individual family score.

Emily Putnam-Hornstein, who helped design both programs, told TalkPoverty that Hello Baby uses slightly different data than the child maltreatment algorithm, which was criticized for targeting poor families because much of the data used was available only for people who used public services.

“This is a universal program,” explained Putnam-Hornstein. “In the [child services] model the county was being forced to make a decision after an allegation had been received; in this case we’re taking about more proactively using data … so we wanted that to be built around universally available data.”

But these exclusions don’t guarantee that the data will not end up targeting low-income families again. “They rely on data where the county has the potential to have records for every family,” said Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “The county acknowledges they will probably use data from [Child Protective Services], homeless services, and the criminal justice system, so yes, theoretically everyone can be in that, but we know who’s really going to be in it.”

An overview provided by the county online cites “birth records, child welfare records, homelessness, jail/juvenile probation records” as some of the “available service data” incorporated into the predictive risk algorithm, indicating that Wexler’s assessment was absolutely correct. Although that data is potentially available about anyone, several of these systems are known to disproportionately involve low-income people and people of color.

Putnam-Hornstein said via email that the Hello Baby process is “truly voluntary from start to finish.” A family can choose to drop-out of the program or discontinue services at any time.

The option to drop out will be presented at the hospital, when families are first told about the program. A second notification, and chance to opt-out, will then be made by postcard. If a family doesn’t respond to the postcard, they are automatically included in the next phase of the program, which involves running available data through the system to determine how much social support each family needs.

According to Putnam-Hornstein, scores will be generated about four to six weeks after birth for families that do not choose to opt out (or who are too busy to realize they want to). Once a family is scored, what happens next varies based on which of three tiers they fall into.

Under the “universal” tier, the most basic approach, families receive mail notifications about resources available throughout the county. Families grouped in the second, “family support,” tier will receive a visit from a community outreach provider and an invitation to join one of 28 Family Support Centers located around the city of Pittsburgh.

The “priority” tier engages families with a two-person team made up of a peer-support specialist and a social worker who will work closely with the families to identify their needs and partner them with appropriate providers. It is designed to be an individualized program that grants families access to the full range of support services available on a case-by-case basis. That could mean helping a parent navigate the complexities of applying for housing assistance or ensuring timely placement in a substance use treatment program. The county said in its promotional material — which was reinforced by Putnam-Hornstein over the phone and by email — that choosing not to engage with any aspect of the program will not lead to any kind of punitive action.

But parents who need supportive services still have reasons to fear intervention from child services. The reality is that any program putting families in contact with social service and medical providers means, by default, also putting those families at greater risk of being reported to child services by placing them in more frequent contact with mandated reporters.

A mandated reporter is someone who is legally required to report any suspicions of child maltreatment they encounter. The intention is to ensure timely detection of as much child abuse and neglect as possible, but data have not shown that an uptick in mandatory reporting equates to more child safety.

In Pennsylvania, nearly anyone who regularly interacts with children in a professional or semi-professional capacity is legally considered a mandated reporter. An unfortunate side-effect of the mandated reporter system is that even though a referral program like Hello Baby is not directly involved with child services, participating families will always be haunted by the possibility of coming under investigation.

But parents who need supportive services still have reasons to fear intervention from child services.

Putnam-Hornstein assured that family’s scores will not be retained or shared with child services, even for families under investigation — but noted that “it is possible that child welfare workers could infer the level of risk if the family has voluntarily agreed to participate in Hello Baby Priority services and a child welfare worker learned that when gathering family history.”

It’s clear that the new program is not designed to get families involved with child services, although it is spearheaded by the Department of Human Services, which oversees the Office of Children, Youth, and Families that conducts child maltreatment investigations and responses. Rather, Hello Baby was created with the goal of offering a more equitable way to expedite service referrals for families with new children who need them.

“Universalizing the assessment of social needs at birth is the only way to avoid discrimination,” said Mishka Terplan, an obstetrician and addiction medicine physician, who was not talking specifically about the Hello Baby program. He observed that patients with obvious social needs, such as those suffering from acute addiction, were often screened and referred for other issues, like postpartum depression or housing assistance, while other parents’ needs were going undetected and unaddressed. “That seemed unfair,” he lamented. Terplan believes that universal screening programs would eliminate both the disparity between services rendered, and reduce the stigma attached to needing behavioral health treatment and other social supports.

Hello Baby’s creators hope that offering families these programs before there is a child maltreatment complaint can help keep them out of the system altogether. But by using imbalanced data points like child welfare history, homeless services, and county prison history to auto-generate scores, it assumes poverty as the main basis for family need. While poverty does generate certain needs, it is not the only indicator for the whole range of unique social supports that new parents require, such as mental health screening or child care assistance.

A system that continues to embed data that target the poor may only end up automating the social inequities that already exist, while placing vulnerable families under increased scrutiny by mandated reporters for the child welfare system — even if it intends to serve as a universal screening process that helps families avoid punitive interventions.

“As long as the system confuses poverty for neglect, any form of such screening is extremely dangerous,” said Wexler.

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